How to Work With Charcoal Pencils

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Charcoal--available in pencils or sticks--is a wonderful medium to work in, capable of great depths of shadow and highlights--and a myriad of applications. With these pluses, however, come a few minuses in the form of its highly smudge-prone nature and tendency to lift off the paper with even the barest of contacts. Still, if you work smart, working with charcoal can be a rewarding artistic experience. Here are some tips.

Things You'll Need

  • Drawing pencils
  • Heavy drawing paper
  • White and gray erasers
  • Small feather duster or large, soft paintbrush
  • Charcoal pencils or sticks
  • Craft knife
  • Fine-grain sandpaper
  • Fixative sprays
  • Sketch out your basic composition lightly, in a hard pencil. While charcoal is erasable, it's much more difficult to correct than regular pencil, so it pays to lay out your shapes and proportions before switching to the more delicate charcoal.

  • Erase any unnecessary lines or stray marks with a white eraser since cleanup of your preliminary sketch will be more difficult later on. A kneaded eraser can be used to pick up charcoal to lighten an area for highlights or slight corrections, but shouldn't be relied upon for full erasure.

  • Sharpen charcoal pencils by whittling the ends to a point with a craft knife. Because charcoal can be very soft, using a traditional sharpener can yield a powdery mess. Shape your writing tip by rubbing over some toothy paper or some fine-grain sandpaper, which you can usually find in small paddles in the art supply section.

  • Work from the top down to avoid smudging the pencil lines as you fill in your under sketch. As with most art forms, starting with the lighter values and then building up your shadows and edges is always a good idea to keep the composition balanced.

  • Use a spare sheet of paper under your drawing hand, even if you're working from the top down, to prevent any accidental smudging or fingerprints. Inevitably, you'll have to touch up an area in an inconvenient spot, so the scratch paper will keep you and your work protected.

  • Spray your work with a fixative to prevent the charcoal from lifting or rubbing off. A workable fixative will protect the art while leaving the surface textured enough to grab more charcoal or other media should you want to continue working on the piece. Other fixatives act more as a sealant and do not easily accept further additions.

Tips & Warnings

  • A small feather duster or a very soft brush can be used to sweep away little bits of eraser without picking up any of the charcoal and redepositing it elsewhere.
  • Use the tip of a small, stick-style eraser to pick up bits of eraser left behind without smudging your work. Clean off the tip of the eraser by rubbing it over a clean sheet of heavy paper.
  • Don't touch unsprayed charcoal drawings and then touch anything else or you will leave fingerprints that will be very difficult to remove.
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